Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office has denied to give information related to the PM CARES Fund –
set up in March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – to a Right to Information activist, saying it would “disproportionately divert the resources”, The Hindu reported on Sunday.
This happened despite a Kerala High Court judgment and multiple orders of the Central Information Commission that the rationale stated by the prime minister’s office can be only used when asked to change the format of information provided and not to deny it fully.
PM Cares – an acronym for Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations – was set up in March with the stated objective of being a “dedicated national fund” to deal with “any kind of emergency or distress situation”. Modi is the fund’s chairperson and senior Cabinet members serve as trustees. Opposition parties have questioned the need to create the reserve when Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund is already in existence. They have also expressed doubts about the fund’s transparency.
RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired) filed an application, seeking details about the number of requests and appeals received and disposed of by Modi’s office each month since April this year, as well as the information related to PM CARES and the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. On August 14, the prime minister’s office responded with the overall data, but refused to divulge information specific to the two funds.
“The information sought by you is not maintained in this office in compiled form,” the chief public information officer in the PMO said. “Its collection and compilation would disproportionately divert the resources of this office from the efficient discharge of its normal functions, thereby attracting the provisions under Section 7(9) of the Act.”
The stated Section in the reply says: “An information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.”
India’s first Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah told the newspaper that this was a misuse of the RTI Act and should be penalised under the law. “There is no ambiguity,” he added. “This is a misuse of the clause by CPIOs. It is up to the information commissions to levy penalties as this would amount to misinformation provided under the Act. In my time, it was the initial phase when people were still learning about the Act, so we were lenient with regard to penalties on this issue. However, it is now well established and there is no excuse for such misuse.”
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In May, the PMO’s office had said that the PM CARES Fund was not a “public authority” under the RTI Act. A law student from Bengaluru had filed an RTI application, seeking details about the constitution of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund. The applicant had asked for copies of the fund’s trust deed and all government orders related to its creation and functioning.
Under the RTI Act, a public authority is an organisation established (a) under or by the Constitution (b) by any other law made by the parliament or (c) by a notification or order issued by the government. The definition also covers organisations financed substantially by the government and non-governmental organisations.
Last month, the Centre told the Supreme Court that the PM Cares Fund is a “public charitable trust” to which anyone can contribute, adding that it is a “misconception” that contributions received by a public trust like this can be transferred to a statutory fund like the NDRF. It added that funds to the NDRF and the State Disaster Response Fund were made available through budgetary allocations.